As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates prepares to leave office, he is reflecting on the past, and warning of the future. According to an article on nytimes.com, Secretary Gates has grown weary of “wars of choice”. I’m not sure whether he considers Afganistan and Iraq wars of choice; nevertheless, we needed Iraq like we needed a hole in our head. I doubt most people would notice, but this is a strong sign of a major paradigm shift in US war policy. Such a shame that this is happening eight years too late (i.e. since the invasion of Iraq).
We had always been lead to believe that the wars in Afganistan and Iraq were not only justified, but necessary. Doesn’t anyone remember the “War on Terrorism” that the Bush administration foisted on us? How quickly memory fades! Just a few years ago, they were saying “we must take the fight to them, or else they are going to attack us!”. In fact, there are a few voices still sounding this alarm. Fortunately, they are on the decline. This argument certainly sounds like a justification for a war of “necessity”. If the claim is that they’ll be attacking us “very soon”, then we are facing an existential threat by definition.
Sadly, this isn’t so different from justifications used for past wars. At least in the US, when the president wants to wage war, he usually has to sell the war to the American people. An effective sales pitch must create a sense of urgency. If you don’t buy now, you’ll regret it later! No president is EVER going to come out and say, “This war is elective. We don’t really need it.”. If you’re going to ask people to risk their lives, you’ll never be able to convince them with an appeal like that. You have to tell the people, “They’re going to rape our women! Make us speak Russian! Take away our freedoms!!“. Therefore, practically every war is going to sound like we need it. A secretary of defense who wants to avoid wars of choice must look beyond the hype.
I don’t even know that we want to avoid wars of choice. Should we have waited until Pearl Harbor to join WWII? Before December 7, there were few signs that the US was directly under threat, which is why we remained neutral for so long. Yet it would have been good for us to join sooner, because we could have saved millions of lives, especially those that were lost in concentration camps.
This leaves us with a very difficult question: How are we to decide when to go to war? As with most non-trivial questions, I don’t think there’s a magic formula that can decide for us. Anyone who claims to know all the answers is not fit to make decisions on matters of such importance.
Warning: going on a tangent
When dealing with questions of such gravity, sound decision-making mostly depends on wisdom. Perhaps this begs the question, but at least we have some general ideas about how wisdom is acquired. Since the US government is a democracy, the other important thing is that the electorate be able to distinguish between candidates who are wise vs. those who less wise. In addition, the electorate must give wisdom of candidates due weight when considering all relevant factors, such as compatibility with personal values.
Based on the 2000 presidential election of George W. Bush, Americans give very little weight to wisdom in their presidential candidates. As I recall, he appealed to many people because he seemed like the kind of guy you could have a beer with at a backyard barbecue. Obviously, this oversimplifies, but it was certainly relevant factor. I think hardly anyone who voted for him did so because they thought he was the wiser of the two candidates, which is pretty depressing.